It is no secret that there is a lot of hostility directed at the news media. Immediately following the disclosures of Watergate in the 1970’s, there were few careers that seemed more heroic than being an investigative journalist. How times have changed…but why?
There seem to be four primary elements that have led to this shift. In chronological order, they are:
- The elimination of the wall between news and entertainment.
- The suspension of the Fairness Doctrine.
- The increased concentration of media ownership among fewer and fewer people.
- Allowing the disadvantages of high technology to prevail over the advantages.
Let’s look at the first two.
According to Harvard’s Nieman Institute, the late 1970’s saw a global shift in the expectations held for news organizations. Hardly noticed by the general public, the late 1970’s marked the first time that news organizations, usually connected to or co-owned by entertainment organizations, were expected to be profitable ventures. Prior to that time, networks saw news coverage as the responsibility of being a citizen of the community, In fact, news stations are still required to allow the public access to write commentaries about a network’s success or failure as a prerequisite to renewing a broadcast license. Unfortunately, few citizens realize that they have the opportunity to comment, opening the door for “infomercials” and other pseudo-news shows that draw high ratings.
Oh, but there are two ways to in crease profits! In addition to increasing revenues, agencies started cutting costs. Typically, a U.S.-based news agency covers the entirety of Africa, a continent with a land mass and a population nearly four times the size of the United States, with just two reporters, usually based in Egypt and South Africa. Whether one is a Republican or a Democrat, does anyone really believe that the Benghazi incident would have happened if there had been prior journalistic scrutiny? Or, going back in time, what about blood diamonds? Rwanda genocide?
When those of us old enough to remember journalism at its peak recall the stories, we remember them both for being truly newsworthy and unbiased. Unfortunately, the biggest blockade to violence has been eliminated: the Fairness Doctrine. Created in 1949 by the FCC, it was eviscerated in 1987 when Congress refused to continue to fund its enforcement.
The Fairness Doctrine required a number of criteria to be met for a radio or television source could broadcast a story. The most significant were that a story had to present all major ideological perspectives, if called for, that editorials be clearly designated as such when broadcast, and that call-in shows could not screen out callers based on their political views. While some challenged the Fairness Doctrine or any attempt to restore it as a First Amendment violation, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, since broadcast stations occupied a portion of the finite amount of electromagnetic bandwidth, the government was within its rights to place stipulations upon its use.
By 1987, political pressure and changes in broadcast technology gave opponents of the Fairness Doctrine the ammunition that they needed to render it useless. The proliferation of cable broadcasting, followed later by digitization, meant that there was so much bandwidth available that the argument that one station’s broadcast would keep another off the air was no longer valid. With media becoming more and more corporate, there was little incentive to enforce a policy that would allow anti-corporate interests to be represented. The emergence of commentators such as Rush Limbaugh reinforced this, since their anger and other style elements attracted new listeners, usually disaffected workers, like flies to honey. Cracks about the “mainstream liberal media,” “femiNazis,” and comparing teenager Chelsea Clinton to a dog may have been unfair and terribly shallow, but there was nothing to stand in the way of his remarks. Finally, to this day, staff members are taught routinely to block anyone who has a point of view that contradicts the star of the show.
Since 2007, there have been efforts to restore the Fairness Doctrine but, besides the fact that one side of the debate has tremendous incentive to block it, two other obstacles remain. One is that the United States has become rabidly anti-taxation in recent years, making it hard to sell any regulatory legislation. The other is the Internet; due to its nature, all Internet news falls into a gray area that is neither broadcast nor print. Could it be regulated?